Thursday, September 27, 2007

Unpleasantries of eating out gluten free in the US

If you read my vacation post, you know how fabulous and easy it was to eat out all over London and Paris gluten free. I must say that the only bad part of the trip was coming home to servers with those perplexed looks on their faces, as I tried to explain I had an intolerace to gluten - or an allergy to wheat. No matter what terms you use - unless you're dropping $50 or so for dinner, you'll be lucky to ever get a server that knows what the heck gluten is. And I'm sorry to say that applies to all those famous chains with gluten free menus as well. Sure there are a few good ones and you might even catch an informed server but if you pry, you'll ususally find out they know someone with Celiac. It's not that they were trained by the restaurant they work at (that has a gluten free menu). I'll never understand why companies bother putting together a gluten free menu and then train no one in their restaurants about gluten.

I've been to all the national chains that have gluten free menus and the only excellent company is Wildfire Grill out of Chicago. The day I read they were opening here was a very good day indeed! I'd contemplated a trip to Chicago just to eat at Wildfire (there is a trade show my industry holds there yearly so it would have been a business trip) but now they were coming to me. Wildfire didn't dissappoint - both their food and service are exceptional. They've been open about a year now and no other chain has a better trained staff in regards to their gluten free menu and safe food preparation. Their gluten free chcolate cake is scrumptious! My hubby is allergic to dark chocolate so I have to eat the entire dessert by myself...poor me....lol! Actually the portion size is perfect for one. Do not miss this dessert if you like chocolate and can't eat gluten - or even if you do eat gluten - it's loved by all!

Please note - if you have to eat in a restaurant where none of the staff (including the chef and manager) know what gluten is, you can probably have a chicken breast (make sure it's not packaged in a wheat protien soloution as are many chain chicken breasts are), a baked potato and a salad. If you can't read the salad dressing ingredient label, use your own dressing or oil/vinegar (not malt vinegar). Many commercial dressings contain wheat. Packets of dressings are available at many online gluten free stores and www.minimus.biz.

I once went to a very popular restaurant in Chattanooga where the only thing I could have was a salad. The place has about a six page menu but after the server spoke to the chef and manager, they decided the only thing they wanted to serve me was a salad. I'm sure there was more I could have had, but I appreciated them airing on the side of caution instead of making me sick. It was painfully clear that no one there had any idea what gluten was. To date, that was by far my worst dining out experience, and in fairness I should admit that my salad was actually delicious! Since then I've been able to avoid situations like that, by letting my friends know if I'm going to eat out with them, we're going somewhere that has yummy dishes for me - otherwise they can count me out. It's a simple concept and like most of those - it works!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Meet the Atlanta Gluten Free Dinner Club

Right after my Celiac diagnosis I joined the local Celiac support group and they were and are a great resource, especially for 'newbies', but I needed something more. Many people with Celiac don't go out to eat - ever. My husband and I consider ourselves just this side of being 'foodies' so not eating out anymore wasn't an option. One night, after getting a disturbing reply to a post about how to eat out safely (that said it wasn't possible), I frantically typed the words 'gluten free dining Atlanta' into the Google search box. And there it was in black and white - it seemed a bit of a tiny miracle actually - The Celiac Disease Meetup Group. From their home page I could tell they are a gluten free dinner group but are they all single? Since I'd been married for almost 17 years at that point, this group wouldn't work for me if they were a singles trying to 'hook up'. Finally the organizer of the group, Kerry, e-mailed me and explained the group and I joined as fast as I could type. You see, this group was exactly what I needed at that particular moment in time.

My first Meetup event (or dinner) was amazing. The meal was very good and gluten free but the best part of the evening was meeting so many others that had the strange condition that I did. I guess aliens hadn't taken over my body after all....lol! That first night I learned that I lived very near a great health food store that carried a ton of gluten free products. Since then I never attended a Meetup event where I didn't learn a thing or two...or even three. The group's organizer summed it up best by saying 'sometimes the best resource we have is each other'. You were dead on with that one Kerry! I've tried to make the monthly Meetup dinners for over 18 months now and usually only miss events if I'm out of town. It's always a good time with great food and friends. Later I'll tell you about a dinner where we had hot gluten free rolls - all we could eat of them. The place is was the Disney World of gluten free dining!

If you have Celiac, I highly encourage you to join a support group. Statistics show that people who are involved with others facing the same struggles, fare better than those that go it alone. This is true no matter the particular challenge. If you are lucky enough to have educated and thoughtful people running your local group (like I do), that's great! If you aren't impressed with your local group's leadership because they are preaching 10 year old gluten free rules like you can't have vinegar - think about starting a group of your own. Trust me when I say that all those naysayers out there spouting warnings like you can not eat out safely and you should never travel again are WRONG. You need to connect with others that have been where you are and can show you the gluten free ropes, so to speak. Help is out there but you might have to hunt for it. Good luck!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Uh - oh! How am I going to eat gluten free in Paris?

My long awaited vacation to London and Paris was planned for early May (2006) so I had less than four months (after my Celiac dx) to figure out how exactly to take the trip, and remain healthy while doing so. I'd heard rumors of England being very Celiac friendly but Paris is the home of the delightfully gluten laden croissant - how the heck could I go there and eat safely? Celiac message boards were of no help whatsoever - most people suggested I cancel my trip actually. I think someone said 'there is no way you can eat gluten free in Paris'. Obviously I took that as a challenge, so my quest for a game plan to take and enjoy my trip began.

I'd recently signed up on the Celiac listserv - it's a great way to get help from others living the gluten free life. It was people on the list that saved the day. Several fellow list members were also planning trips to Paris, and one lady from Chicago would be back from her trip before I left. She was an absolute lifesaver! She not only provided me with a list of places she ate safely all over Paris, she also reassured me that gluten free in Paris was not only doable - it was much easier than eating in the US gluten free. But how could that be? I really don't have an answer for that question - even after finding out it's true personally. It is what it is. Simply put - Paris is the least Celiac friendly city in all of Europe and they are years ahead of the US on this issue - period.

For the trip I printed and laminated some free gluten free dining cards in English, Italian and French. I should have taken every language card available since both London and Paris offered so many ethnic cuisines but I did fine eating safely all over both cities. Only two of our meals were pre-planned before leaving town - afternoon tea at The Dorchester Hotel and one dinner in Paris, accross from Notre Dame, where the Chef's wife was a Celiac. We ate every meal out the entire trip - well I did have to take my own meal on Delta which didn't offer a gluten free meal option at the time - and I never once reacted (for me that's bloating or a serious stomach ache) to my food. I never 'got glutened' as we say. I'd be very afraid to attempt such a feat in the US.

I think the fact that I'd been to Paris once before (unplanned 20 hour layover) did help since I'd had a 'real' croissant and French bread. Somehow, knowing how great both those things were didn't tempt me to cheat on the diet. I could not afford to get sick on vacation. The biggest mistake I made was packing a backpack full of food - nuts, dried fruit, pretzels, crackers, energy bars - anything I could think of. You name it - it was shelf stable and gluten free, it was in my backpack. The crackers and salad dressing packets came in handy at times but most of the food came right back home with us. I ate cheese in Paris three meals a day and my crackers were the perfect accompianment for that. That's the only snack I ate most of. I didn't put a dent in my stash of pretzels, energy bars or anything else I took.

In London there is a grocery store called Sainsburys. They have a gluten free product line that is somewhat similar to Hostess items in the states. It seemed much more healthy but as it's shelf stable, it does contain perservatives. I bought a few boxes of tiny gluten free loaf cakes to supplement my breakfast in London and managed to get one box of loaves to Paris on the train. I should have bought much more stuff at Sainburys and brought it home. There is nothing like this product line made in the US - that I've found anway. If you're ever in England, I'd suggest you look for a Sainbury (or Tesco) and stock up yourself, on all the gluten free delights that we can't get here.

I know this post is long and for that I apologize but I have to make one more very improtant point. I never had to settle for a bland, plain meal in either London or Paris. The most uninspired meal I had was actually one I'd packed for the Delta flight - a turkey sandwich, chips and fruit. But for breakfast I'd packed bacon, and egg, cheese, crackers and fruit and when the other passengers got a whif of my bacon, they all wanted what I had. Delta served a green bananna and a hard, cold roll for breakfast on that flight...lol! I ate like a Celiac queen during my travels and you can too. It takes some research and planning but it's oh so worth it! Safe and tasty gluten free travels everyone!!!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Eating out with friends - gluten free that is

My advice on this matter is simple. Don't do it...at least in the beginning. You'd be surprised at how difficult it is to sit around a table full of pasta and bread and not be able to have any of it, for the first time anyway. I don't care how much you care about your friends and family - you won't feel very loving towards them when they're noshing on crab cakes and you're eating crackers you brought in your purse. Trust me...I learned this the hard way. These days situations like that don't bother me at all, since I see gluten like others see rat poison. But that was not the case when I first started navigating this mysterious gluten free existence. It probably took me a good six months before I was comfortable going out with someone besides my husband for a meal ...except my gluten free dinner club but more about them later.

If you're lucky enough to have a supportive spouse like me, they won't order crab cakes or three layer chocolate cake in front of you. However, your friends, and probably even your family, won't be so thoughtful. You might even find yourself wanting to cram a loaf of bread down someones throat at some point. Keep in mind that no one is trying to aggravate you on purpose - it's just that if someone is not on a restrictive diet themselves, they can never understand how it feels.


Eventually you understand that it's really not even about the food - it's about someone saying 'you can't eat this or that'. Let me tell you that I didn't like the words 'you can't' when I was a child and my feelings about them have solidified with time. If you tell me I can't do something...anything...and I will set out to prove you wrong and so far I've never failed at this task. It should be noted that my parents raised me to believe I could do anything I set my mind to. Without question that belief was one of the greatest gifts they ever gave me.

Throughout my life I've met people that were scared of everything...(changing jobs, starting a business, moving to a new place) and I've never understood them. Thanks to my upbringing I doubt I ever will. If it weren't for the wonderful foundation with which I was raised, I'm certain I would not be diagnosed with Celiac today. You see, I would never thought of questioning doctor after doctor, all of whom were sure I didn't have Celiac disease. I can never express the gratitude I feel for all the things my parents did, and continue to do for our family. By the way, they will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary in December - congrats Mother and Daddy! Oh and for those of you not from the South, grown women routinely use the term Daddy for their fathers, no matter their own age....lol!

Okay I'll get back on track about eating out now. I did not believe others (mostly on Celiac message boards) who told me that my life of eating out and travel were over now that I had Celiac. Someone actually said 'the sooner you accept that, the better off you'll be'. As you can imagine I set out to prove them all wrong and thankfully, the book 'Let's Eat Out!' helped me do just that. It taught me (and showed me in easy to read graphs) exactly what I needed to do in order to eat out anywhere in the world gluten free. Well the book actually covers all top eight allergens but I only had to learn the gluten free stuff. The book is huge and I'm not going to pretend I read every word of it. But I read the important things that pertained to eating out with my own allergen of gluten, including all the sections that explained what dishes typically contain gluten all over the world. Let's Eat Out! helped me to take a trip of a lifetime, when many people told me to cancel my trip. Thank goodness those words 'you can't' kept popping up. Mmmm....we'll see who can't do what.

CPK's gluten-free pizza - third time's a charm!

Once upon a time, California Pizza Kitchen (aka CPK) introduced a gluten-free crust.  And, it was the worst I've ever had in a restaura...